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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lukashenko Makes Up With Russia

APBelarussian President Alexander Lukashenko and President Vladimir Putin working to mend rifts during a meeting on Wednesday at a government residence outside of Moscow.
Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, who is barred from visiting major Western nations, pledged unflagging cooperation with Russia during a visit Wednesday to mend rifts with his country's huge neighbor.

"Belarus has always been and will always be a friend to Russia," Lukashenko said at the start of talks with President Vladimir Putin.

Signaling a smoothing of ties, both leaders said the talks brought progress toward deepening the two nations' formal union, a subject that led to a sharp dispute in August when Putin suggested a scenario in which Russia would essentially swallow up Belarus. The leaders also said a more recent dispute over Russian gas supplies is being resolved.

Lukashenko can little afford to alienate Putin as the West steps up its campaign to pressure him into launching democratic reforms. On Tuesday, the United States slapped a travel ban on Lukashenko and seven top Belarussian ministers over alleged human rights violations in Belarus. Last week, 14 of the European Union's 15 members imposed the same prohibition.

On Wednesday, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, accused Belarus of anti-democratic policies and of giving military assistance to Iraq.

Immediately after arriving in Moscow, Lukashenko said Belarus would put its natural gas pipeline network up for privatization next week -- one of Moscow's top demands and one Putin expressed thanks for after their meeting.

"We know very well the energy and gas needs of Belarus and the Belarussian economy, and I can with complete responsibility state that their needs will be met," Putin said after more than two hours of talks.

Gazprom is interested in further expanding its network in Europe, and the Belarussian system is a key link. Earlier this month, Gazprom warned Minsk it was cutting gas supplies to Belarus because of debts for previous deliveries. Lukashenko had angrily described the decision as "unprecedented pressure" and "an exclusively political step," but he softened his attitude Wednesday.

Neither leader mentioned the Russia-Belarus Union dispute publicly Wednesday. "As a whole, despite disagreements that are well known, I would like to confirm again: Positive movement forward is clear," Putin said.

Before the meeting, Lukashenko alleged that foreign entities he did not name were trying to drive a wedge between Belarus and Russia, but he said that "Belarus is the boundary that will not be crossed" -- meaning that Moscow would not betray its old friend under pressure from the West.

Putin seconded that. "Russia in the past decade has given away so much that there's no question of giving away anything [else]; we will take, but naturally, within the framework of agreements and international treaties," he said.

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov joined the leaders for part of the talks Wednesday, said Putin, saying they discussed the idea that "the actions of Russia and Belarus abroad should be agreed upon and should answer to our national interests."

Lukashenko said Belarus is ready to start negotiations about the return of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose Minsk mission he closed last month after repeatedly accusing it of interfering in internal affairs.

However, Lukashenko added a defiant note. "We cannot be pressured," he said.

"As a sovereign, independent state, it is impermissible to shove us from behind. We have our national interests."